Located within the Cypress Island Preserve near Lafayette, La., the Lake Martin Rookery is a bird-watcher’s paradise. The lake offers a unique habitat that attracts nearly 60 percent of all U.S. bird species to a scenic forest of oak, cypress and tupelo trees. The lake was formed in the early 1950s by a levee that was built around 765 acres of swampland. The birds started nesting in small numbers, and in 1989, more than 12,000 pairs of white ibises built their nests there. Many believe that one of the main reasons the lake became so popular with the wading birds is the resident alligators that keep predators such as raccoons away from the nesting areas.
Sightings include great egrets, roseate spoonbills, cattle egrets, little and great blue herons, snowy egrets, tricolored herons, black- and yellow-crowned night herons, barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, anhinga, cormorants and American white ibis. On rare occasions, nesting bald eagles have been spotted from fishing and tour boats out on the lake.
The rookery is a short 20-minute drive from Lafayette. Take Highway 94 toward Breaux Bridge and turn right at the stoplight onto Highway 353. Drive about five miles until you see a sign for “Lake Martin Rookery Road” on the left. This road makes a half-circle around one end of the lake and continues as a walking trail around the other.
Temperatures range from the mid-40s in the early morning to the mid-70s in the early afternoon. As summer moves in, activity is at its peak, and so is the temperature, which can be in the high 90s. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat for protection from the sun.
My gear of choice is my Canon EOS 20D, along with a 75-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 telephoto-zoom lens and 1.4x teleconverter. The converter helps frame those nesting chicks for an up-close and personal experience, and the image stabilization of the lens comes in handy since the nests are normally in shade. For scenics of the lake, I use a Canon 18-55mm. The 18mm is perfect for those wide views, and if a bird flies or lands nearby (or an alligator swims by—which happens often), the 55mm can get a nice close-up shot. I always bring a tripod, which slows me down and makes me concentrate on composition. Exposures can be tricky, so I occasionally use a graduated neutral-density filter or Hoya’s Moose Peterson Warming Polarizer to bring the exposure values closer and capture all the beautiful hues of the sky and lake.
Early morning puts the sun at your back and also is prime time for nesting and feeding. Throughout the day, you can drive or walk along Rookery Road, the left side being the most active. Late evening is a great time for in-flight shots as the birds come back to their nests and fly directly over the road. The rookery is closed for breeding season from February until August. Contact: The Nature Conservancy (Louisiana Office), (225) 338-1040, www.nature.org.